His ground-breaking work on the Scottish herring fleet, Drifters, had its premiere in 1929 alongside the first British showing of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. In 1936, he produced the celebrated Night Mail, directed by Harry Watt with script by W.H. Auden and score by Benjamin Britten.
A prolific director and producer, he was particularly influential through his creation of film units within the Empire Marketing Board and the Post Office, nurturing a whole generation of documentary makers, including Edgar Anstey, Sir Arthur Elton, Stuart Legg, Basil Wright, Harry Watt and Cavalcanti. Among his many achievements, John Grierson established the National Film Board of Canada during World War II, and served as UNESCO's first Director of Mass Communications and Public Information in 1947. Throughout his long career, he was in some way responsible for the production of well over 1000 films and television programmes.
In A Researchers’ Guide to John Grierson: Films, Reference Sources, Collections, Data (Grierson Memorial Trust, 1990), John Chittock, Chairman of the Grierson Memorial Trust from 1989 until 2000, wrote:
Grierson’s influence on factual film-making was immense, underpinned by a strong social commitment. Of this he said: “The basic force behind [documentary] was social and not æsthetic. It was a desire to make a drama out of the ordinary, to set against the prevailing drama of the extraordinary: a desire to bring the citizen’s eye in from the ends of the earth to the story, his own story, of what was happening under his nose.”
The documentary (especially on television) has gone through many stages of creative development since he died, but he left behind a legacy in the many film-makers who dominated the British factual film (and BBC television) after the war. It could well be argued that the special place of excellence enjoyed by British television today owes much to that tradition, which was available to make movies when the BBC only had radio experience behind it.
This is not to say that Grierson did not generate an element of mythology, fuelled at times by some of his colleagues. My own single meeting with him near the close of his life confirmed, for me at least, my suspicion that he thrived on being centre of the stage, was a shrewd publicist for his own causes, self-interested, brutally blunt about his colleagues, and a great performer in projecting a carefully cultivated image.
But if he perfected this style in raising his own stature, he did it for worthy and sincerely supported causes. Without it, he could never have succeeded in making governments, industry and bureaucrats finance the schemes and the films which created the British documentary movement. If the role of the moving picture in society today has succumbed to becoming chewing gum for the masses, it is because the world has no real successors to the likes of Grierson and his colleagues – nor, let it not be forgotten, to Sir Stephen Tallents, the senior civil servant who encouraged and helped to make possible the early work of Grierson.
Film-makers who worked with Grierson or were inspired by his approach to documentary later permeated the BBC and television generally. His influence and enthusiasm spread everywhere.